2020 NBA Draft: Can Aleksej Pokusevski be Europe’s Next Unicorn?

A  bigger emphasis has been placed on players’ skills as we’ve progressed through the modern age of basketball.

Rather than pigeonholing players into spots on the floor because of their size, teams now look to have five on the floor who are capable of dribbling, passing and shooting at all times. 

With this change, we’ve seen taller players over the years start to venture away from the basket, ditching the post entirely in order to operate from the perimeter. There’s a range of prototypes too.

Kevin Durant is a seven-foot shooting guard. Kristaps Porzingis has become a 3-and-D player at 7’3”. Nikola Jokic is his Denver Nuggets’ defacto point guard despite his weight fluctuating in the high 200s each season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo does everything for the Milwaukee Bucks—except consistently knock down three-pointers, but even that’s clearly on its way. He can play the one on offense and then defend fives on the other end of the floor.

Now there’s another prospect that is looking to join the “unicorn” society, this time via the 2020 NBA Draft.

Serbian teenager, Aleksej Pokusevski (pronounced: A-Lek-Say Poke-Ooh-Sev-Ski), is listed at 7’0″ and 201 pounds, but he is not anything like a normal big man.

He can shoot from beyond the arc (on the catch or off the dribble). He can knife his way into the lane off the bounce. He can make plays and reads that are usually only done by guards. He can defend the rim and protect the paint. And he can score with his back to the basket.

His breakout moment came at the 2019 FIBA U18 European Championship where he helped the Serbian team finish at the top of Group A by the end of the preliminary round. He led the team in assists twice through three games and finished with a team-high six assists versus Great Britain and Turkey. 

Ultimately, his team was upset by Lithuania in the Round of 16. However, Pokusevski filled up the entire box score each game and finished with averages of 10.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, four assists, 4.1 blocks, and 2.6 steals. 

It’s evident that Pokusevski possesses the requisite basketball intelligence to contribute in the world’s best league.

He’s been part of the Olympiacos program since 2015, having begun as a member of their youth teams before being pulled up to Olympiacos B in 2017. 

He made his first EuroLeague appearance in March of last year. At 17 years old, he became the youngest player in Olympiacos history to play in a EuroLeague game. While his stint was short (just one minute) he still managed to chip in one point, two rebounds and one assist.

Like most young European prospects, Pokusevski doesn’t yet see consistent playing time with the senior-level group at Olympiacos, but he is still receiving top-notch coaching and player development from the club. 

It shows in his game: He is a strong rebounder (11.5 rebounds per 36 minutes), takes care of the ball (2.6/1.8 assist to turnover ratio) and has a consistent shooting stroke that is able to convert at a respectable percentage from the free-throw line (77.3). 

Pokusevski won’t turn 19 until a couple months into his rookie season, so projecting him to immediately become a star in the NBA is hyperbolic. However, he has produced for his team in the areas where he will most likely be asked to contribute right away if he’s getting regular rotation minutes as a rookie.

His biggest red flag? Poor shooting numbers.

When you watch clips of him playing, everything about his shot looks great. He has a high release point, he bends his knees prior to receiving the pass in order to be shot-ready, his entire motion is smooth and easily repeatable.

Yet, his field goal percentage numbers don’t tell the same story. He’s hitting a porous 37.9 percent overall and 30.6 percent on three-pointers. Granted, half of his attempts are coming from the perimeter—4.5 of his 8.6 field goal attempts per game are three-pointers—but that ratio will likely remain the same when he comes to America. 

Take New Orleans Pelicans rookie Nicolo Melli, for example. He has been an important piece for that team as they try to claw back into the Western Conference eighth seed. Melli’s ability to stretch the floor next to Zion Williamson makes the Pels really tough to defend for opponents. 

Pokusevski is four inches taller and 11 years younger (though he does weigh 34 pounds less) than Melli, and he has the added bonus of being able to facilitate as well. At worst, his floor as a prospect is as a stretch-5 off the bench for a playoff team after a couple years of seasoning—maybe even as a “stash” player staying overseas a bit longer or logging some serious time in the NBA G-League.

Every team picking outside of the lottery in the 2020 NBA Draft could use that.

The best-case scenario would see the Serbian teenager add muscle in his first couple of years and become a more consistent three-point threat. He’d be good enough to learn on the job at the NBA level on the back end of a rotation. The additional strength would make him an even better interior defender.

Add that all up and you could end up with a player along the lines of what Brook Lopez has become for the Milwaukee Bucks.

It’s difficult to say that any of the 60 players drafted each season are going to have a long career in the NBA. But Pokusevski is coming into the league at the right time. Coaches and general managers are more open to letting their players use all of their skills rather than slotting them into roles based only off of their size.

Pokusevski’s ability to do a little bit of everything, and his continuous development over the years, profiles him as someone who should become a good player. In the right situation, he could be a great one.

For many, this is the first time hearing his name, but it certainly won’t be the last.

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